The Beauty & Anti-Nazi Message of Artur Szyk’s Haggadah
#photography & visual arts
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Artur Szyk (also known as Arthur Szyk) was an internationally acclaimed Polish Jewish draughtsman and illustrator. In the 1930s, he created a Haggadah, or a traditional guide to the Passover Seder. Due to its superb aesthetic qualities and bold, anti-Nazi message, this outstanding example of book art is one of the best-known texts of its kind.
Culture.pl explains the intricacies of Szyk’s publication, showing how it differs from other Haggadot – and the unique ways it spoke to the troubling realities of the Interwar period.
The path to freedom
In Aramaic the word ‘haggadah’ means ‘the telling’. It is also the name of an important, traditional Jewish book – a compilation of ancient liturgical texts based on the Torah, which recount the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt and their Exodus to freedom.
To open the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, or Pesach, the Haggadah is read at the Seder meal, recounting the story of how the Jews freed themselves from bondage. The sharing of this text is considered a mitzvah, or fulfilment of a religious duty.
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The Haggadah is a book that contains the liturgy for the Seder eve, the first evening of the Passover holiday. That’s when the whole family gathers at the table to celebrate, or actually to relive the dramatic escape from Egypt once more. Everyone is to experience it, even little children […]. It’s the beginning of the path to freedom and identity – religious and national – or, as it’s often suggested nowadays, personal and spiritual. On this night, everyone is to feel that they, too, are escaping slavery.
From ‘Czym Się Różni ta Księga od Każdej Innej’ in the monthly ‘Midrasz’, trans. MK
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The ancient Haggadah has been published thousands of times. A quotation from the website of the British Library sheds some light on the history of the text:
One of the most cherished texts in Judaism, the Haggadah was originally part of the Hebrew daily prayer book, becoming an independent unit around the 13th century CE. Its educational character and the fact that it was specifically intended for use in the home, made it particularly suitable for decoration. Since ancient times the Haggadah has thus been one of the most frequently decorated texts in Jewish practice.
In this long, rich tradition, a special place is held by the Haggadah created by the Polish Jewish artist Artur Szyk – which remains one of the best-known versions of this book today.
A great, good heart
Artur Szyk (1894-1951) was an internationally acclaimed draughtsman and graphic artist. Born in the Polish city of Łódź, he authored highly popular anti-Nazi caricatures and paintings, as well as masterful book illustrations that referenced historical art, such as mediaeval illuminations. Among the books Szyk illustrated are The General Charter of Jewish Liberties, a mid-13th-century document granting Jews in Poland economic and religious freedom, The Arabian Nights Entertainment and The Canterbury Tales.
Szyk is known to have been proud of his heritage. He highlighted his Polish Jewish roots through artworks like the aforementioned Charter (published in 1932) and the 1938 series of paintings titled The Glorious Days of the Polish-American Fraternity, which shows figures and events important to Polish-American relations. The article Artur Szyk: Łódzki Rysownik, Którego Nienawidził Adolf Hitler (Artur Szyk, the Łódź Draughtsman Whom Hitler Hated), published in 2016 by the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, includes the following quotation from the artist about his home city:
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A thousand threads tie me to Łódź – here, I lived my wild youth. Łódź has a great, good heart, and you won’t find anywhere quite like it in the whole world. Believe me, I’m not saying this because I’m blinded by patriotism. It’s something I know from experience. I’ve been entertained courteously in Europe and Asia, but nowhere have I found such a welcoming atmosphere as in Łódź.
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Satan Leads the Ball lampoon the major leaders of the WWII Axis Powers (including Adolf Hitler), among whom are interspersed other key historical figures as well as symbolic and allegorical figures including Death and Satan, photo: Wikipedia
Artur Szyk began to work on his Haggadah soon after he published the Charter. At that time, Adolf Hitler was just about to come to power in Germany. One of Szyk’s works, the 1933 caricature Hitler as Pharoh, shows how the artist perceived the Nazi leader. As the title suggests, the drawing portrays Hitler as a despotic ruler in ancient Egypt. Szyk viewed him as a new Pharaoh enslaving the Jewish people.
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The parallel Szyk noticed between the Egyptian bondage and the realities of 1930s Germany is what, in all probability, prompted him to undertake the task of creating a Haggadah of his own. He wanted to make a book that would communicate that the Nazi oppression of Jews could be overcome, just as with slavery ages ago. Significantly, the inclusion of contemporary themes alongside traditional ones is a longstanding practice in Haggadot. For instance, a 1879 Haggadah from Warsaw shows factories and other elements of the industrial revolution.
Szyk completed work on his Haggadah in 1938, a year after he had moved from Poland to London. To give his version an openly anti-Nazi tone, Szyk placed swastikas in its images – for example, they can be be found on his depictions of Egyptian soldiers. But before the English printing house Sun Engraving Company published the book, the artist removed all the swastikas from the manuscript.
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Here’s how this turn of events is commented on in the catalogue for Drawing against National Socialism and Terror, a 2008 exhibition of Artur Szyk’s works held at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum:
Whether it was pressure from his publisher or the social and political pressures of a nervous Great Britain that led to Szyk’s self-censorship is not clear.
Others’ unwillingness to provoke Nazi Germany may have indeed been a key factor here. But whatever the reasons behind the disappearance of the swastikas, Szyk must’ve concluded that it was worth putting out his Haggadah even without them. Apparently, their absence didn’t outweigh the value of the project’s message against oppression.
One harmonious whole
So, what are the contents of Artur Szyk’s Haggadah? The 48-page illuminated manuscript displays the calligraphy of the traditional text in Hebrew and illustrations that Szyk created by hand. An introduction to the text by Cecil Roth, a historian of Judaism, explains Szyk’s approach to book art as rooted in a fascination with ancient manuscripts:
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Alone perhaps among modern artists (for he is an artist above all) Szyk considers his art in the terms of books, and books in the terms of his art. He does not illuminate a page, as many before him have attempted to do, considering it to be a unit in itself. He thinks of each page in its relation to the text and to the volume, integrating calligraphy, illumination, illustration and narrative into one harmonious whole. It is in this, even more than in the exquisite perfection of his work, that he inherits the spirit of his mediaeval precursors.
The watercolour and gouache illustrations show many of the topics traditionally present in Haggadot: such as preparations for the Seder meal, scenes from Moses’s life (e.g. taking him out of the river Nile) and the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. All of this displays an incredible attention to detail and a vast palette of brilliant colours. The calligraphy is executed with unparalleled skill as well:
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What’s also amazing is that sometimes, to present a single letter, the artists uses three or four colours. And so, to paint the refined ornamentation of one of the initials, the artist used: orange, yellow, vermilion, turquoise, the colour of fuchsia, pale rose, a few shades of green, ochre, brown and cobalt.
From the 2007 book ‘Artur Szyk: Artist, Jew, Pole’ by Joseph P. Ansell, trans. MK
Brought to nought
Elements that point to an anti-Nazi meaning appear in a number of places in Szyk’s Haggadah. These can be seen, for example, in the depiction of the four sons – a traditional Haggadah motif showing four kinds of people: the Wise, the Wicked, the Simple and the Inarticulate. Typically, the wicked son is shown as a warrior, which links wickedness to fighting and reflects ‘the peace-loving nature of the Jew and his abhorrence of warfare’ (in the words of Cecil Roth). But Szyk decided to portray the wicked son in a completely different way.
Here’s how Irvin Ungar, an expert on Artur Szyk, explains the uniqueness of the artist’s treatment of this important Haggadah theme:
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Szyk does not paint that warrior as the wicked son, rather he paints a very Germanesque figure with riding boots, a crop, a feathered hat and a very Hitler-like moustache on him […] It is said there were some Jews in Germany at the time [1934 – ed.] who identified early, very early with the National Socialist party, the Nazi party, in terms of the economic reforms they were promising. Szyk would’ve seen them as the wicked sons.
From Irvin Ungar’s 2011 talk about Artur Szyk’s Haggadah at the Library of Congress
In another illustration, Szyk depicts King David defeating his enemies from a chariot. The dead bodies of his foes are trampled by the horses, and over them, an eagle reminiscent of the Reichsadler symbol used in Nazi Germany can be seen. This and other depictions of valiant Jews in Szyk’s Haggadah stood to portray a people capable of withstanding the real oppression they faced at the time.
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Another part of Szyk’s work deals with the injustices Jews faced throughout history – which may also be seen as a commentary on the situation unfolding in the 1930s. Here’s a quote from the 2007 book Artur Szyk: Artist, Jew, Pole by Joseph P. Ansell, as translated by the editor:
The initial opening fragment about the persistent persecution of Jews over the ages shows a dark landscape filled with spears, arrows, cannons, skulls; a skeleton hangs from a gallows. In the painting, you can find symbols of anti-Semitic regimes such as ancient Egypt, mediaeval Spain and Tsarist Russia. But there are also elements that bring to mind the strength and steadfastness of Judaism: on the top of a mountain, above all the symbols of the oppression of Jews, there are two huge tablets with the Ten Commandments.
Commenting on the passage illustrated in this way by Szyk, Cecil Roth calls it the ‘keynote of the Haggadah’. He adds: ‘The frustration of the designs of the Pharaoh is prototype and pattern of the lot of all later enemies whose evil intentions are brought to nought by the Jew’s implicit trust in his God’.
Among the most beautiful of books
Artur Szyk’s Haggadah was first published in 1940 by England’s Beaconsfield Press. This exclusive edition yielded only 240 copies, which were printed on double-leaf parchment and bound in blue leather with gold printing. A single copy was sold for 520 dollars – enough to purchase a car at the time. The text was printed in Hebrew on one side and in the corresponding English translation on the other.
Szyk dedicated his Haggadah to King George VI, a leader who opposed Nazism. That’s why he included in it a special dedication page addressed to the monarch, where the following inscription can be found:
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At the Feet of Your Most Gracious Majesty I humbly lay these works of my hands, shewing forth the Afflictions of my People Israel. Artur Szyk, illuminator of Poland.
On the same page, you can also see an image of Saint George fighting the dragon. In the lower right-hand corner, next to a Polish eagle, there’s a self-portrait of the artist, a palette and paintbrush in his hands.
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The very first copy of this impressive book was presented to the monarch, who is known to have appreciated it greatly. In 1941, The Times called Szyk’s Haggadah ‘worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has produced’. In 2017, one of the original copies sold at an auction for a whopping 56,250 USD.
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Artur Szyk passed away in 1951 in New Canaan, Connecticut, but his art and Passover Haggadah live on. The book was reissued a number of times in trade editions – in 1956 in Jerusalem, for example, and in Tel Aviv in 1996. In 2008, a new edition was put out by Historicana of Burlingame, California.
According to Joseph P. Ansell, the book’s practical use during Passover and its many reprints brought Szyk ‘greater fame than any other work.’
Written by Marek Kępa, Apr 2018